We are told learning to listen well starts with paying attention. This is true. But where does undistracted attention start? What can our first experiences with listening tell us about being good listeners as adults? Here’s my theory.

Learn To Listen…No, Really Listen

Learn to listen well enough to be able to tell the speaker how they feel.
Learn to listen so well you can tell the speaker how they feel

# 43 on my, 99 Life Tips – A List is: Learn to listen,…no, really listen. You want to be able to summarize not just a list of facts the speaker is relaying, but how the person feels about those facts.

Most advice about listening well, while fine and helpful, focuses on techniques and tools more than on the proper mindset. We are told learning to listen well starts with paying attention. This is true. But where does undistracted attention start? What can our first experiences with listening tell us about being good listeners as adults? Here’s my theory.

No one is born knowing how to listen well. Though newborns do recognize their own mother’s voices. It is believed they respond to the emotions expressed in ”baby-talk”, and begin to associate speech with the communication of emotion. This happens well before abstract meaning is understood. 

Mothers of newborns are amazing listeners

Mothers of newborns can distinguish and recognize the sound of their own baby’s crying, even when presented with dozens of other recordings of different babies. That’s impressive. Additional research indicates that fathers can also perform well if they spend an equal amount of time with their newborns, but mom’s still score better. Almost two times better!

This 2017 article in Time magazine shows what happens in mom’s brains when they hear their babies cry. The emotional and verbal centers fire in preparation for an emotionally attuned response. These neural changes don’t happen for non-mothers. Mothers of newborns listen well. Impressively well. They know how their baby feels just by the timbre of the cry. The interesting take away is the clear emotional component involved. 

If you hope to listen well, you will also need to recognize how the speaker feels.

This article from the National Institutes of Health cites studies indicating that by ten months, a baby differentiates sounds of her native language from a non-native tongue, and soon thereafter begins losing the innate ability to form sounds not found in the ”mother” tongue.

newborn baby crying...it's mother is listening
This baby’s mom knows who it is and probably knows what it wants…just by listening

What does this have to do with learning to listen?

It seems that newborns and their parents are able to both hear and communicate with emotional fluency. That is, there is an unconscious, but underlying and foundational emotional bond when listening for, and speaking to newborns. And the newborn is attuned to the emotional conveyance of the babbling and cooings directed his way. Newborns and their parents intuitively know that verbal sounds carry emotion.

Newborns lose the ability to form words they don’t hear in their native language at about the same time they become more proficient in forming and trying out the words they do hear. This is what makes it difficult to gain linguistic fluency of foreign languages as we age. We will likely never sound like native speakers of languages not our own. We were born with the ability to trill ”R” sounds, but if we don’t hear that sound as infants, we’ll likely lose the ability. Just as it is difficult for a Japanese person learning to speak English who doesn’t grow up hearing the hard ”L” sound since it does’t exist in Japanese.

Babies learn to form sounds, and learn meaning by listening. Sadly, somewhere along the developmental arc, babies learning to speak, and learning new vocabulary, ”outgrow” the initial importance of the emotional impartation of language, in exchange for the mechanical and comprehension components. They stop listening for the emotion and begin listening for the mechanics and the meaning. And parents don’t emphasize the transference of emotion as much as their children age, either. 

Paying attention is easy when you care, Impossible if you don’t

To be a good listener means going back, as silly as that might seem. New parents can hear the sound of their own baby because they care. As mother’s listen, their brains change, preparing for an emotional response to the perceived needs of the baby. They know that the emanation of sound is the expression of emotion. Their baby’s…and their own. Even if they are unaware of the psychology behind it, and would never say it just that way.

As this New York Times article points out, good listeners are similarly empathetic, listening from a sense of caring. Responding not just to  the words spoken, or the recitation of facts, but also to the emotional frequency. The more you care to apprehend the speaker’s feelings, the easier it is to pay attention. Can you tell the speaker how they are feeling? A good listener can. The better you become at this, the more you will hear and retain. You’ll be listening and connecting beyond mere sound and meaning. 

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